Tuesday, September 01, 2020

Abandon lectures: increase attendance, attitudes and attainment

In a recent debate with Stephen Downes, I spent some time going through dozens of papers and meta-studies showing that the lecture is a largely disastrous pedagogic technique, devoid of formative assessment, diagnosis of student understanding, actual teaching or inspiration.

I wasn’t surprised at the qualitative nature of Stephen’s response, as I’ve heard it many times before 1) that lectures are not about ‘teaching’ but ‘showing practice ’i.e. what it’s like to be a physicist, whatever, 2) some lectures are good e.g. Martin Luther King’s speech etc. and 3) lectures must be good as they’ve been around for so long.

I don’t buy any of these arguments as 1) that’s not what lecturers or students think, expect or require, 2) the fact that a chosen few can do something well (like surgery or any other form of expertise) doesn’t mean that it should be done by everyone 3) slavery was around for millennia but it doesn’t make it right – you can’t derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. In any case, I’ll beaver on uncovering the evidence where I find it.

In this week’s Science, a Nobel Prize winning physicist and associate director of science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Carl Wieman, along with researchers Louis Deslauriers and Ellen Schelew, published a paper ‘Improved Learning in a Large Enrolment Physics Class’ that shows improvements in attainment, attendance and attitudes in students when lectures delivered by senior experienced academics are abandoned in favour of approaches where postdocs, interactive techniques and formative assessments are used.


As the authors say, even in good lectures, with good student reviews, student attainment can be poor. So they cut through the qualitative stuff and compared:

1. Control group (267 students) taught by experienced faculty member with years of experience teaching the physics course and good student evaluations.

2. Experimental group (271 students) taught by a postdoc with almost no teaching experience in introductory physics, using proven, researched, learning techniques.

The groups were taught a module in a physics course, in three one hour sessions in one week. In short; attendance increased, measured attitudes were better (students enjoyed the experience (90%) and thought that the whole course would be better if taught this way (77%)). More importantly students in the experimental group outperformed the control group, doing more than twice as well in assessment than the control group.

Academics will go to great lengths to defend traditional lectures, even abuse, (see my Don’t lecture me! ALT talk complete with abusive Tweets). However, there comes appoint when the evidence (surely a fundamental tenet in HE) must win out. This paper points towards something that decades of research have confirmed, that there must be a rethink on lectures. We may then have a chance to dramatically change teaching in Higher Education for the better, also making to cheaper. In other words, get good teachers to teach and let researchers research. The two competences may overlap but they are not congruent.


martin said...


you're ignoring two major issues:

1) you're discussing outputs, which as you correctly point out are pretty poor for lectures, but what universities are far more interested in are inputs and in that arena, lectures are very efficient, 10 small interactive classes with 30 students each is far more expensive to run than 1 300 student lecture

2)There is a small percentage of students who find lectures an effective way of learning and unsurprisingly, you'll find many of those students are the ones who end up as university lecturers :-)

Keep up the debate, sooner or later universities will have to focus on quality of education as opposed to cost of education

Donald Clark said...

Martin - your tongue must be stuck permanently to the inside of your cheek! Absolutely. The HE game has become a 'bums on seats' game and that is to concentrate on the wrong end of the learner.

Jan Jensen said...

I really enjoyed watching your talk on YouTube. I was intrigued by your comment during the discussion about the use of going to conferences. It's something I quite agree with, but it's not something I've heard voiced before.

I would be curious to hear what you think the alternatives are? Blogs collecting invited posts on a particular topic? A collection of videos summarizing results from different researchers?

Clare Forrest said...

Recently I ran a course on Proposal Writing for Trainers. Given the audience, I went to a lot of effort to make it as fun, interactive and experiential as possible. Half way through they asked me to stop it and just tell them what they needed to know. So I did.

Colmmu said...

Donald - we ditched lectures in 2005 and replaced with interactive online sessions so we could focus contact time on more meaningful facilitated workshops in a blended model. 6 years on people still try to convince us that lectures = quality human contact and thus learning. The results in attainment say otherwise. Keep up the good work.

Anne Powles said...

I have been a serial education consumer all my life. I have this debate constantly with my son, a Uni academic, who agrees with you. I am inspired by a good lecturer and no, it does not have to be a Julius Stone on the day of the Bay of Pigs speech by Kennedy (which he played to us live. A lecture by someone on a topic that excites them is still magic for me. But they have to be excited! I think lectures should only be a (perhaps small)part of the equation but they are great for aural learners. Do other things but don't throw the baby out with the bathwater as is a common educational practice.

Donald Clark said...

Ann - I agree, the problem I'm addressing is the fact that the uninterrupted lecture is still the core pedagogic practice in HE - bad lectures at that. Donald Bligh and others have looked ta the research on whether university lectures 'inspire' - truth of the matter is that, overwhelmingly, they don't. Here's just a taste of the research:

Do lectures inspire & motivate?
Bligh: 15 studies lectures less effective than other methods, only 1 the reverse

Hale Report: 7 teaching methods ‘lectures’ ranked 7th for efficiency, 5th for enjoyment, 1st for frequency

McLeish reported distaste for lectures in students from 10 Colleges of Education & several Universities

No problem with the occasional lecture but they're simply a default. One one issue I'd disagree - that there's such a thing as aural learners. The whole learning styles movement is a 'crock of....'.

Stephen Downes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
riiya819 said...

Keep up the debate, sooner or later universities will have to focus on quality of education

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